Greg van Eekhout writes for everyone: an adult novel, a Young Adult novel, and a Middle Grade Novel: Norse Code (adult), Kid V. Squid (YA) and the latest The Boy At the End Of The World (MG). His forthcoming trilogy the Osteomancer´s Son is about a kingdom of Los Angeles powered by bones from the LaBrea Tar Pits. His stories have appeared in Year’s Best SF 24, Solaris Book of SF, Asimov´s, Year´s Best Fantasy and Realms Of Fantasy & more. Find Greg online at http://writingandsnacks.com/ and also as @gregvaneekhout on Twitter.
SFFWRTCHT: Let´s start with the basics: Where did your interest in Science Fiction and Fantasy come from?
Greg van Eekhout: Star Trek (original series), Planet of the Apes, comic books. Those are my first deities. Oh! Star Wars, too. Jeez. Of course Star Wars. Those Apes movies blew my freaking mind!
SFFWRTCHT: Who were some of the authors who most thrilled and inspired you growing up?
GVE: In terms of lit, Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, and then a slew of comics writers: Legion of Superheroes. Costumes, super powers, in a SF-nal setting. Candy.
SFFWRTCHT: When did you start writing and how long until your first sale?
GVE: Started writing with the intent to publish in high school/early college. Sold first story for ten dollars when I was twenty-six. Took several years after that for first pro sale, and more and more years until the first novel.
GVE: I took some creative writing in school, but it wasn’t really helpful. Just an excuse to write for class credit. I learned by reading and writing. Writing, writing, writing. It can be dangerous, though. You’re not necessarily writing what you want. You start writing for a grade. But my prof said my sf stories were like farting through a keyhole. “Clever, but why bother?” He stole the line from another writer.
SFFWRTCHT: You used to develop curriculum for schools as a day job, right? How do you apply those skills in writing stories?
GVE: Curriculum demands clarity of message, which is a good tool to have in your kit as a writer.
SFFWRTCHT: When writing for Middle Grade audiences vs. adult, how much work is it to adjust the vocabulary you use?
GVE: I have a limited vocabulary anyway! Actually, I probably err on the side of big words with the Middle Grade stuff. Kids are smart and they learn vocab from context.
SFFWRTCHT: Did the editor ever question any words you used as appropriate?
GVE: No, I think she was willing to market the book for a slightly older audience if the vocabulary got too challenging.
SFFWRTCHT: Where´d the idea for The Boy At The End Of The World come from?
GVE: It started with a broken robot. I’m drawn to broken robots. They’re in a lot of my stories. Then I wrote a story called “Far As You Can Go,” which was post-apocalyptic about a boy and a broken robot. It was written for adults, but I thought I might revisit it as a Middle Grade novel, and it turned out to be super fun to write.
SFFWRTCHT: Did we have childhood trauma with a broken toy robot perhaps?
GVE: Ha! No, I just see them as a metaphor for flawed humans. Which we all are. They’re funny and sad.
SFFWRTCHT: The Boy At The End Of The World is set after an environmental apocalypse of sorts with specimens preserved in Arks full of pods left behind to preserve the species. The point of view character, Fisher, is one of these pod specimens, a child born and programmed as a Fisher. He´s befriended by a “broken” metal man whose mission is to keep him alive and by a young mammoth. Interesting choice of the word “ark” as describing the libraries of pods. Biblical reference?
GVE: Nope. I’d been reading about a real seed ark in Norway, I think. That’s just what scientists call them. The robot, Click, is a “helpful” companion whose flaws often make him not very helpful.
SFFWRTCHT: Some of the most interesting science details in the book were suppositions about how species might adapt in size, etc. to survive. I´d imagine it’s fun to think up such details. Did you do any specific research in conceiving them?
GVE: Well, I read about “Island Syndrome” which leads to weirdly large or small versions of “normal” animals. Pygmy mammoths, the “Hobbit” people of Indonesia, lots of examples in nature. But mostly my research informed me that such changes really take a lot of time. That’s why I added the genetic engineering component, to accelerate the possible changes.
SFFWRTCHT: I found the idea of preprogrammed human specimens as Fishers, etc. interesting as well. Genetic engineering too, right?
GVE: Yeah, the pod people are genetically engineered and artificially gestated. Their personalities are uploaded. As a story-telling device, it was fun to play with nature/nurture questions.
SFFWRTCHT: When you write, do you start with characters sketches or outlines or just let it unfold as it comes?
GVE: Characters usually arise organically. I need some chapters, or sometimes whole drafts, to discover them. I’m actually trying to teach myself to be a better outliner. Fewer dead ends and missteps. More and more, though, book acquisitions depend on an outline with the submission, so it’s good to learn it.
SFFWRTCHT: Is it harder to write science ‘fiction’ now that so much of what was science fiction is now fact?
GVE: Nah, I believe science fiction in media is the fantasy land we’re still allowed to believe in.
SFFWRTCHT: You said language wasn’t a particular barrier. What adjustments must be considered in writing MG verses adult?
GVE: It’s more a mindset than a list of forbiddens and requirements. Kids are complicated with a complicated mindset.
SFFWRTCHT: So characters emerge from the exigencies of narrative or plot? Is there a trend to how they develop?
GVE: They start off by being plot pawns and gradually take shape and develop a degree of unpredictable “realness.” Rules don’t really work for me. It makes the books lifeless and contrived.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you need to know the end before you start?
GVE: I’d say it’s more like a bridge? I need to see something at the end, even if it’s distant and foggy.
GVE: Kid vs. Squid was born as a piece of flash fiction about the survivors of sunken Atlantis. Every summer they wash up on the shores of a beach town in Central California and work as carnies. The hero of KvS is tasked with defeating the evil witch (who’s just a severed head) who wants to sink California. It was my chance to tell a story expressing my love of quirky seaside tourist culture.
SFFWRTCHT: I did hear it was comedic.
GVE: It’s my “funny” book. Yeah, she’s a head in a box, displayed in a museum as the What-Is-It??? When she’s conscious she can cast spells, and she has kelp men and lobster guys as henchmen.
SFFWRTCHT: Did either of the MG books come from short stories?
GVE: Yup. Kid vs. Squid came from a flash piece called “Flotsam,” and Boy at the End from a story “Far as You Can Go.” “Far As You Can Go” was written for adults, though, and it’s in Year’s Best 24, Dozois (ed.) Short stories are nice ways to test some ideas that could be expanded to novel length.
GVE: Norse Code grew out of my first pro short story sale, “Wolves Till the World Goes Down.” It assumes some of the Norse gods are conspiring to kick off Ragnarok. There’s a huge cosmic battle at CostCo. Norse Code expresses my love of taking fantasy elements and putting them in modern settings.
SFFWRTCHT: And Norse was an adult novel but one you wrote after first trying a YA story?
GVE: Yup. My first book was YA. Never published. Norse Code, my second attempt at a novel, is fantasy for adults
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have trouble keeping a short story short?
GVE: Anymore I have trouble with short stories at all. My brain’s been reconfigured to think novels. Distressing. When I do write short stories, though, tends to be flash. To me, the shorter I can get, the better. There was a Twitter fiction market I sold something to. That was fun!
SFFWRTCHT: What do short stories teach a writer? You get quicker feedback, right?
GVE: Primarily, you learn to conceive, write, and finish stories. You learn concision. You learn to be a writer.
SFFWRTCHT: What kind of responses do you get from readers and critics/reviewers on your work so far? Do kids respond differently than adults?
GVE: I actually get so much more response from adults than kids. Kids seldom email. It’s kind of weird, because it’s like getting the reader response second hand. Often, the readers of kids’ books are adults. There’s a whole adult gatekeeper level to get beyond.
SFFWRTCHT: What can you tell us about the Osteomancer´s Son. The trilogy relates to a successful short sold to Asimov´s?
GVE: Right, another book that started as a short story. Basic idea: Magic exists in the remains of magical creatures. Wizards get power from consuming those remains. It’s a twist on Eastern herbal medicine, really. Los Angeles, with the La Brea Tar Pits, is a rich source of magic, and as a result is ruled by wizards. Our hero is a thief and the son of a wizard killed by LA’s head wizard. Osteomancer is modern epic fantasy for adults.
SFFWRTCHT: Very excited about it. Is the first book done? When can we expect it?
GVE: I’m halfway through the second draft of Book 1, due December 1 (eep!). 2013 publication is likely. Maybe 2012.
SFFWRTCHT: What role do beta readers play for you in the process now that you have a publisher?
GVE: I still depend on my beta readers. You want your editor’s first impression to be as good as possible. They’re all professional writers, plus my girlfriend, who’s not. They know what I’m trying to accomplish and push me.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time structured like? Are you full time?
GVE: Full time for the time being. I sometimes need noise, sometimes silence, sometimes the solitude of my desk…sometimes the energy of a coffee shop. Whenever something’s not working, I try something else.
GVE: I go to Blue Heaven, a pro, peer novel workshop most years. It’s like an annual writer’s group. Sorta.
SFFWRTCHT: Awesome to be flexible with writing time. Any plans to write in other genres?
GVE: I’m really happy writing fantasy and science fiction. I’d still like to try YA and comics.
SFFWRTCHT: What projects are you working on for the future that we can look forward to besides Osteomancer’s Son?
GVE: The two next Osteomancer books have me busy for the next year or two. At some point, another MG novel. I’m not contracted for another MG, so I’m waiting until it’s a story that I can’t not write. Hopefully if sales are good, the publisher will consider buying another Fisher book from me. I’d love to write it.
SFFWRTCHT: Also, I see you’ve collaborated with Jay Lake. Any other plans to collaborate? How do you approach collaboration?
GVE: Collaborations are always different. Jay gave me a completed story and said “Add emotional element.” It was intimidating. I didn’t want to screw the story up! Other collaborations have been round robin where you try to basically hose the other guy. No current plans, but I like them.
SFFWRTCHT: What advice would you give to up and coming writers or those just starting out?
GVE: Every day you write, you beat the thousands who didn’t and the millions who didn’t try. It’s cliche, but if it’s your dream, don’t put yourself in a position to regret not trying hard enough. It’s hard to get published in worthy places. Harder than I expected, anyway. Hold yourself to high standards. And forgive yourself for being a bad writer. You have to work through many, many bad words. If it’s what you want to do, then you have to give yourself the best chance. Nobody else can. I think you have to fail a lot. Every attempt at writing is a new kind of failure. Success and failure can take place in the same sentence. Also, stay hydrated, take care of your back and wrists, and get out of the dang house sometimes. One last thing: It’s supposed to be fun. If it really makes you miserable, stop.
Interviewer Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.